Indistinguishable From Magic Avatar

Posts tagged design

441 Notes

Silhouettes: the Silent Killer

The eye isn’t a camera.  When we view objects, especially moving objects, our brains tend to break them down not into a collection of varying hues, but rather silhouettes.  Quick object identification is a primal evolutionary necessity, and it’s a foundational way our visual interpretation works.  It’s why camouflage works too.

When an object’s silhouette is difficult to make out, we have a tough time keeping track of what we’re seeing.  It’s why so many comics and drawings use the visual shorthand out outlining figures and objects.  The shades and values of an object are secondary to the basic shape when it comes to recognition.  As such, effectively managing silhouettes is a vital tool for visual narratives.

Essentially, the general rule is if you were to fill in your characters and objects with black, you should still be able to tell what they’re doing.  All the most essential elements need to be far enough away from the “body” or primary silhouette so that they are distinguishable.  The less important elements don’t need to be isolated this way.  In the above image, the only two significant things we need to know is that 1) Kim is talking with Ron and Vonnie, and 2) that she is gesturing in an explanatory way and then retreating her gesture.  Simple as that.

Readable gestures can make or break a scene. Compare Kate Beaton’s clear posing with Wonder Woman in these panels:

To this decidedly less readable Wonder Woman page:

If what’s going on isn’t clear at the fundamental level, the details can’t save it.  This isn’t, of course, to say that you can’t have a complex image that’s also readable.  It just requires a lot more skill and attention:

All the essential elements are here above.  The lines of action, the relevant silhouette intersections and the overall clarity of what’s happening.

As I’ve mentioned before, when blocking out a scene, it’s useful to identify a hierarchy of visual importance. In general, an isolated silhouette element has a higher visual importance than one that’s intersected with something else. By keeping the essentials clearly defined in silhouette and less important elements intersected or obscured in silhouette, you’ll more easily maintain clarity and effectively draw the reader’s eye to what’s most relevant in a scene.  (I should note that when I say “importance” I mean the order in which things are viewed, not necessarily what’s literally most important in a scene.)

While silhouettes alone don’t determine all the essential information of a scene, they are more often than not the foundation.  If the most important elements can’t be readable in a simplified form, it means the foundation needs to be reworked.  This applies not only to panels and scenes, but to the designs of the characters and environments themselves.  

If you can’t easily distinguish your characters by silhouette alone, they should be reworked.  Silhouette recognition is a vital part of design, so vital in fact that I’m going to save it for my next post about character and costume designs!

318 Notes

Draftsmanship: Increasing Your Visual Vocabulary


Few would argue that there’s no benefit in increasing your verbal vocabulary.  Having a larger set of words from which to choose not only allows you to articulate your thoughts more clearly to an audience, it presents a more sophisticated mental framework for the genesis of your own ideas.  There’s a greater pool of resources at your disposal.  Even if you don’t directly use all the words you’re able, having them there, capable of flowing naturally, multiplies your capacity for expression.

The same is true for drawing skills, especially when it comes to cartooning.  As has been discussed before, the nature of the visual narrative is that a cartoonist is writing with images.  The more well-rounded the skills of that artist, the more diverse and effective the visual narrative can become.  Draftsmanship, in particular, can be defined as the capacity to effectively illustrate, regardless of context.

Clarity of Expression


This is the most obvious advantage.  Being able to draw a variety of things well means the tools at your disposal are effective and diverse.  For example, being able to draw figures is good, but being able to draw an infinite number of variations of that figure means you’re able to instinctively select the most appropriate pose/gesture/etc. for a scene.

Style is Grounded in Realism


While this is a fairly simple concept, you’d be surprised how often it’s overlooked.  Most comics don’t benefit from extreme realism, but the ability to render things realistically strengthens and expands your capacity to stylize your art.  If, for example, you’re poor at drawing hands, any attempt to stylize or minimalize the details in cartoon hands are going to be limited, in both style and expressiveness. 

Learning to draw based exclusively on the drawings of others (like, say, manga) is going to severely limit your skills, because you’re not actually learning to draw the forms upon which the style is based.   You have to know the rules before you can adequately break them.

Visual Flexibility = Mental Flexibility


In short, the more things you can draw intuitively, the more creative you can become.  It’s true!  When sketching or even doodling, our brains tend to default to shapes and forms we find easiest to draw; expanding our visual vocabulary expands the amount of default forms we can draw, and by extension, the diversity of concepts that can easily flow while brainstorming.

Often, being able to draw new things presents us with ideas we’d otherwise never consider.  Also, simply being comfortable with drawing more things means you’re instinctively more likely to try new things.  This applies to both visual design (coming up with new objects/locations) as well as raw ideas.  You may not get an idea to write a scene/comic/joke about an Aztec flying machine unless you were comfortable drawing those basic forms.  Likewise, without an artist having the prerequisite drawing experience, he or she may not get the idea to set a scene in a 17th century pirate cove rather than a college dorm room.  It’s not so much that a less well-rounded artist couldn’t draw these things, it’s that he or she is less likely to even consider it, as it’s outside the comfort zone.  It’s important to push our boundaries, but if we’re too uncomfortable with every visual element of a project, ideas aren’t going to flow naturally, and we’re actually incapable of challenging ourselves effectively.

If you look for it, you can tell when an artist is extremely skilled, regardless of how complex or simple their style may be.  They challenge themselves, and their art and writing is dynamic:


A strong vocabulary means not just having tools at your disposal, but being comfortable using them.  Even if you’re drawing something as simple as a stickman comic, having a foundation of strong draftsmanship expands your creative potential a hundredfold.

78 Notes

Kim Ross & Vonnie Awning - finalized designs.  I tried to make sure these two contrasted as much as possible.  Kim’s coat actually has no collar and acts almost like overalls, emphasizing her young age and comparatively diminutive stature.  Kim dresses for function alone, with as many pockets and bags on her person as possible.  (Also she wears a snap-on poncho when it’s cold.)

D.H. Ron’s sister, Vonnie, is much more elegant and voluptuous (and stands about a foot taller).  She’s dressed in much more stylish clothing, in keeping with certain fashions within Nephilopolis.  She occupies both a different world and mindset than Kim.  I look forward to putting these two characters together.

61 Notes

A color study of Kim’s outfit for Dark Science. Does she look like a supervillain yet?

A color study of Kim’s outfit for Dark Science. Does she look like a supervillain yet?

789 Notes

How a Dresden Codak Page is Made


It starts with a rough outline.  For Dark Science I have a basic script and story outline, and I decided how much of that script can/should fit onto a standard page.  From there I start working out what I needed to draw.

Concept Sketching

With this page I started with sketching Nephilopolis.  Having written the story ahead of time, I already had a rough idea of what I wanted, but not the details.  I started by going back to my first sketch of the island I did months ago (before I’d finished the plot).


A very rough idea at this point.  Once I got to this page in the story and actually solidified the notes about the setting, I began fleshing it out:


Here I’m just sketching out possible elements.  I wanted to make the head clearly recognizable, and also for the giant’s shapes to contrast clearly with the shapes of the island.  At this stage the design was still fairly symmetrical.  After I was comfortable with the basic idea, I set the giant at an angle to the island and worked on more details:


Although at this point the design wasn’t “finished,” but it was enough to get started on thumbnailing the comic:



Using a standard hard round brush in Photoshop, I quickly and roughly start working on the basic layout of the page.  From the “script” I have directions as to what needs to happen in the scene, but I don’t worry about the specifics of the dialog until later, as it will depend on how the images end up shaping.



Using a textured brush that looks a bit like pencil (there’s no need for this, just a personal preference), I start “pencilling” the page, solidifying the forms and rendering all the details that I don’t want to forget about when I start to color.  With the Nephilopolis island I left things rougher, as I know from experience with landscapes that I end up improvising a lot when I start painting.  By contrast, Kimiko and the stranger are tightly rendered, as they’ve already been fully designed and introduced in previous pages.


I’ll use a specific section to illustrate the steps I normally take with painting.


Step 1: Colored Lines


Using a round hard brush with pressure sensitivity controlling both opacity and size, I draw out the basic outlines.  Even though often these outlines won’t be visible, it’s a good starting point for blocking in colors for the next step and ensuring the edges of the figure are smooth.  I only generally use this step for figures, as I tend to give them sharper edges so they’ll pop out a bit.

Step 2: Blocking in Colors


Underneath the lines layer I start filling in the basic colors.  I’m not concerned with detailed shadows and lighting just yet, only making sure the general colors are where they need to be.  At this point I’m working with four layers: one set of lines & colors that go underneath the black borders (the top half) and one set that go on top of the borders (bottom half).

Step 3: Flatten and Render


From here I flatten the color layers with their respective line layers and, with a round brush set to opacity sensitivity (no size sensitivity), I begin painting.  As you can see, some of the lines I’ve left and some I’ve removed; it all depends on what’s needed.  Also note that this actually looks slightly different from the “finished” torso in the comic, as I went back a couple times and tweaked some details.  No piece of the comic is totally finished until everything is finished.

Rendering the Island


With this page I started with the “known” elements (Kimiko, the stranger and the train car all had set designs and shapes) and worked my way to the “unknown” (the island).  I dropped in a basic filler for the sky and started to think about the tonal values.

Setting up Tones


For a very complex image that you haven’t painted before, it’s easy to jump into it with lots of colors, guns blazing, but you run the risk of losing appropriate contrast and overworking key areas.  For these situations I prefer to make a grayscale “underpainting,” where I work out the appropriate tones.  I don’t allow myself to blend anything or use colors at this point.  Once I’m satisfied with the basic lighting, I move on to color selection.


Here I’ve begun testing colors.  I decided at this point to remove some of the border lines.  I found them to be distracting as I started to have a better view of the composition.  I’ve also moved the robot portions to their own layer and hidden it for the time being, letting me focus on color selection and rendering of the rock and island portions.


Rendering the robot portions begins, leaving the details of the top portion sparse for now, as it will be mostly covered by the city portion.


Toying around with the colors of the cityscape.  Not concerned with details yet.


Most of the city is rendered at this point.  I’m leaving the robot’s arm until later, as I’m not satisfied with how it’s playing against the rest of the picture.


Nearing completion.  Fleshed out the clouds and added some contrast.  Still toying with the arm.


Finished up the arm, and added the final text bubbles.  Done!

230 Notes

Advanced Layouts: Paneling Outside the Box

Panels are useful, so useful that we start to believe that they’re an essential element of comicking, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Panels are merely a means to an end, a straightforward way of conveying a visual narrative; they enforce a clear sequence of images with dividing lines.  This is fine, but if we rely on this formula too often the sequence can get stale, and we tend to miss more exciting opportunities.  Complex layouts are good for the brain:  if done well, they excite the reader and allow for a greater vocabulary of techniques to get your point across.  

Here’s a basic guide to some nontraditional techniques, in order of difficulty.

Non-Rectangular Panels

This should really be in every cartoonist’s armament.  Panels can take any shape you want.  So long as the content is clear and readable, anything goes.  For example, you can use it to insert a less-imposing panel into a sequence to let the reader know what’s going on somewhere else:

You can use the silhouettes of other images to create a different mood, or to imply the contents of an environment without drawing them:

Or shape panels to indicate where a character or object is in a composition:

Or just reshape them for stylistic purposes:

Like any tool, it shouldn’t be overused.  Often, it’s good to insert irregular panel shapes within a sequence of rectangular panels to emphasize a contrast.  All the techniques used to emphasize focal points and lines of action can actually be applied to the panels themselves, so never underestimate their significance.

Objects Crossing Panel Borders

Having an image breaking out of a panel onto another panel is an excellent way to draw attention to that image.  It holds the reader’s focus, and also can be combined with other advanced techniques for some really creative compositions.  This is another skill that cartoonists of all kinds can utilize.

The risk is low for this, so long as it isn’t overused.  The results can be very effective.

Removing Panels Entirely

(Aside being the greatest webcomic of all time, A Lesson is Learned is also especially good at this technique).  This is a complex approach, but the rewards far outweigh the difficulty.  The comic can take on a very organic, etherial quality where the composition of the images takes over entirely.  This can leave the reader vulnerable, as you take away the scaffolding of the narrative and the tempo becomes looser as more is left up to the reader.  Because the reader can lose their footing, it’s possible to deliver powerful emotional moments, catching them off-guard.

It’s important to note that all the standard composition elements must still be present.  If anything, they become more indispensable, as the challenge of directing the narrative becomes more intense:

You force them to think on their feet, but also allow them to wander a bit in the image.  This doesn’t mean for a second, however, that panel-free comics can’t be exciting, adventurous and funny:

Also, switching from no panels to panels and vice-versa is a useful way to emphasize a scene or mood change in a story.  In this example, Kimiko hooks herself up to a machine and goes from her panel-free scene to a strictly paneled virtual world inside her computer:

Non-linear Storytelling

Just because comics are visual narratives doesn’t mean the narrative has to move in a straight line.  Unlike films, which are inherently one-dimensional in their direction (one frame after the other), comics have two dimensions within which to play, and this opens up lots of fun opportunities for conveying information.

In the above image, the “boss” character hangs himself, but his hanged body doesn’t occupy one particular panel.  It overlaps several, and different parts of the body are interacting in different scenes.  It also dominates the entire page as a whole, making it clear what the most powerful image of the composition is:

We’re not limited to a single image either.  Entire panel sequences can run parallel, indicating that two events are happening simultaneously:

It’s also possible to tie in two simultaneous sequences to indicate where they specifically meet:

In the above image, the first and last panels illustrate the same images, but from different distances.  They serve to provide continuity to the sequence.  The man realizes his sight has returned while the other Time Travelers are speaking with Dmitri.  Instead of splicing these images in a single line like in film, we simply line up the two sequences side-by side.

Reversing the Flow

It’s possible to successfully change the comics flow from "left to right" to "right to left," but I’m going to warn you: this is Dark Side stuff, used only when absolutely necessary and when you’re absolutely sure you can pull it off.  Here’s the best example I know:

In the second row, instead of moving back to the left side, the composition keeps us on the right, takes us down the waterfall and moves us from right to left back to the other side.  This isn’t a superflous technique: it accentuates the character’s winding path and journey into the underworld:

How does it get away with this?  By incorporating techniques we already know, guiding us in the correct direction.  Let’s break them down:

  1. No panels - This softens the reader’s eye.  We as the viewer aren’t looking for the “next panel,” and can be more readily influenced by the other compositional elements.
  2. High contrast focus - Before instinctively returning to the left side of the page, we’re caught by this high contrast archway.  Once our attention is held, the next element takes hold…
  3. The characters are looking in the direction the artist wants us to look - We will instinctively look where a character’s looking if set up properly.
  4. The waterfall is flowing in the direction too - Again, this reinforces the new flow.
  5. The eye is drawn to dialog - These are the only nearby words in the composition, so we naturally look to them.
  6. An iconic suggestion - Almost subliminal, this looping arrow reinforces the change in direction.

When changing the direction of the comic’s flow, it’s essential to really guide the reader by the hand, otherwise you run the risk of confusing them or losing their attention entirely.  I’ll use one of my own (very old) comics as an example of flow-reversing executed poorly:

There’s not enough visual reinforcement of the flow change here.  A couple things are done right: Kimiko is facing in the direction I want the reader to now go, but the slight panel overlap isn’t enough to make this clear.  Also, something as pivotal as a visual punchline like this is probably best left to a regular panel arrangement.

So there you have it.  This is by no means a comprehensive list of advanced layout techniques, just a guide to the beginnings of what’s possible.  These techniques open up all sorts of styles and abilities, and greatly expand a cartoonist’s visual vocabulary.

I can’t stress reading A Lesson is Learned enough.  Although the comic ended a few years ago, its artist David Hellman has worked on some other projects, like the hit game Braid, and its author Dale Beran has an excellent new comic called The Nerds of Paradise.

226 Notes

Show vs. Tell: Why “Visual” is Not Optional

Marshall McLuhan coined the famous phrase “the medium is the message,” meaning that the information within a medium and the medium itself are irrevocably intertwined.  How the viewer/reader/etc. receives the information is part of the information itself.  Different media generate different experiences.  Even reading a sentence on a piece of paper activates a different part of the brain than having someone read that same sentence to you.  From the standpoint of an artist, how we convey “content” is not separate from content itself.  It’s all content.  Content is what we present to the readers.

The reason I bring this up is that there’s often an attitude amongst certain creators that the visuals “don’t matter” as much in comics, citing that elaborate visuals can and often distract from the “content,” which they see as the story, text or joke.  This is a misinterpretation of the medium (as described above), but it also makes the mistake of conflating elaborate with effective.  Elaborate visuals are not always the same as effective visuals.  Effective visuals are essential to comics, while elaborate visuals depend on context and personal style.  As such, the comic artist is obligated to show information via the visual narrative as effectively as possible, rather than tell the reader through excessive text or other misplaced expositional devices.

Don’t be fooled by the stickmen: Pictures for Sad Children is one of the most visually sophisticated webcomics ever.  Its visuals are anything but elaborate, but they are effective, and employ many of the essential visual tools previously mentioned in this blog.  When I say “effective” I specifically mean it efficiently conveys the vital information and intended mood.  Despite the minimalism posing and virtual lack of facial expressions, the characters have a great deal of emotion coming out, and it’s largely because of the expert blocking and layouts.  Let’s take a closer look at the above comic:

There are a lot of advanced techniques being used here.  In particular there’s an aggressive use of negative space as an active player in the action, as well as tactful employment of “pauses,” which are panels that are mainly used to better define the pace of the reading.  This helps clarify and emphasize other panels, similar to how (in the last article) negative space can be used to separate two focal points. The majority of information given to us is not spoken by a character, but rather implied via the visuals.  Imagine how dull this strip would be if it was reduced to a repeating flat shot of three characters delivering the same lines.

Johnny Wander, while more realistic in its renderings than PFSC, is still fairly minimal with regards to visuals without losing any effectiveness.  There’s a masterful establishment of rhythm and tempo in the above page, with very clear high’s and low’s with regards to panel intensity.  There’s a buildup to the punch that’s very clearly executed.

Straight text writing is largely geared toward conjuring an image in the mind of the reader in the absence of literal images.  Comics use both, and as a consequence an overuse of text ends up competing with the images rather than working with them.  Because comics are a visual narrative above all else, it’s important, when laying out a comic, that one considers the visuals first and the details of the text second.  The literal text should never lead the images, because one runs the risk of telling the audience rather than showing them.  With comics, text augments the image, not the other way round.  Remember, comics are the art of compression.  They are not “picture books.”

Nick Gurewitch describes his cartooning process as trying to say as much as he can with images, and only then adding dialog when the images are insufficient at completing the idea.  He’s also famously said that humor is simply tragedy sped up, which is one reason comics are so well suited for comedy in the first place.  They can set lead us one way and pull the rug out from under us in such a brief duration.  So much information is shown to us in a brief instant:

It’s a poor strategy to view pictures and words as ratios to be managed in a comic.  They are not competing elements, but part of one tool: the visual narrative.  If you strip away the visual language you’re just telling someone an idea; you’ve altered the context and changed the content.  ”Content” is not a separate concept that transcends the execution of that concept, but an integral part of the product as a whole.  In other words, “the medium is the message.”

212 Notes

Primary & Secondary: a Tale of Two Focal Points


In painting and general illustration, there are some basics everyone should know about composition.  Chief amongst these is the importance of a focal point.  A focal point is the primary focus of a picture, whether it’s a person, object or simply an abstract portion of the image.  Humans have binocular, mammalian vision and our action of “looking” instinctively relies on focusing, not just seeing.  Unless we’re looking at a magic eye 3D image, our eyes are only really comfortable with an image that has a clear focal point.  Once that’s clear, we allow our eyes to wander and take in the other details.

Achieving a solid focal point isn’t terribly difficult.  A few tools that will help are contrast (overall the most indispensable):


Complementary Colors (a subset of contrast):


And overall structure:


However, these are the conventions of painting and illustration, which have somewhat different goals from comics.  Comics, even in a single panel, employ the art of the visual narrative, which means there are unique demands for guiding the reader’s eye.  Having a single focal point can be enough for some panels or images, but oftentimes it’s necessary for comics to employ multiple focal points in a single image to not only draw the eye in a meaningful, sequential fashion but also to heighten the reader’s excitement and immersion in the story.


"Sequential art" doesn’t just refer to a sequence of panels, individual images also lead the eye in a sequential manner.  There is a hierarchy of focal points that guide the reader through the visual narrative.  In the above panel from Family Man, we see the above “focal point” tools being used to create a nice frame, but from there the composition is divided further, first focusing on the man, and then to the woman.  A clear hierarchy within the visual sequence is established with some more advanced techniques.

Gazes moving from left to right:


In Western comics, panels and text are read from left to right, so it’s in the best interest of the artist to take advantage of this natural habit of the reader’s eye.  Unless forced to do otherwise, the reader is going to look at the top left corner of a comic image and move to the right.  A reader will also instinctively look in the direction a character is looking, and in this panel the artist is taking advantage of both of these habits.  We start on the man, who is looking at the woman, upon whom we then focus.



There’s a frame created by the books and bookshelf that keeps the eye from drifting downward.  This reinforces the previous technique of moving the eye from left to right.  (Notice too the slight dip in books near the woman’s hand, drawing the eye to a third and softer focal point, ie: the letter).

Soft division through negative space:


What largely separates the two focal points is a low detail negative space, where the contrast is low and the eye doesn’t linger.  It also creates a 3D triangle of sorts:  if we were shooting lasers out of our eyes, they would start at the man, ricochet off the wall and hit the woman.

Primary and secondary contrast levels:


It’s subtle, but the values surrounding the man are more contrasted than the woman.  This largely serves to reinforce the tools previously mentioned.

These types of techniques are also prevalent in the first image I showed, with Kimiko being the primary focus and her bag the secondary focus:






As you can see, the tools needed are slightly different, partially because of the larger colors used and other compositional requirements (for example, the image with Kimiko has a more complicated frame because it uses a 3-point perspective instead of 1).  The point to take home is that there’s no one way to make this work; you may use some of these tools and not others, depending on what the image requires.  Additionally, it should be noted we’re not limited to two focal points.  Depending on the comic, there could be more.  It all depends on what the visual narrative requires.

This is the key: no matter what the style, comics are a visual narrative.  If we establish a clear sequence of visual relevance, the reader’s eye is active and their mind is engaged.  Pull them into your world and keep them for a while.

155 Notes

Drawing Hands: Augmenting an Idea

Most people understand the importance of facial expressions in cartooning, but if there’s anything that’s routinely neglected, it’s hands.  It’s a shame too, since hands are the second thing we instinctively look at when a person is speaking to us.  We use our hands in a variety of ways to accentuate our point; if we actively restrict ourselves from gesturing at all, natural speech actually become rather difficult.  This goes beyond dialogue, too: hand gestures lead us to what’s important, and they’re the most frequent body part to indicate action and interaction with the environment, as well as other characters.  Hands dominate the focus on what’s important in a scene, and to neglect this is to neglect a pivotal tool in storytelling.

The Meek is an excellent example of a webcomic that knows how to use hands.  They’re not just used to accentuate a gesture or mood, but different characters have different habits of gestures, just like real life people.  Whether it’s a subtle gesture (indicating a sort of royal calm) like above, or an indication of surprise or bewilderment:

An innocent investigation:

Or visible frustration:

In the above image, we go from the girl’s hands centered in the frame, almost mirrored.  It keeps the focus dead center and the composition flat.  Then the “camera” shifts to the left, bringing us out of that moment of mental processing and onto the action.  Her right hand gestures outward, and we instinctively want to follow it to the next scene, whatever that may be.

Enrique Fernandez does an especially good job of hand interaction with other objects and faces.  They allow us to focus on what’s most important in a scene.  Guiding the eye is a central part of comic art, and hands are an efficient way to achieve this.

Despite being lavishly detailed, there’s never any confusion as to what the focal point is in each panel.  If the reader has to try too hard to figure out what’s important, they lose interest in the visual path of the image and may lose interest in the comic altogether.

Hands need not be realistic or detailed to achieve their purpose.  Octopus Pie is a very “cartoony” comic, but there’s an economy of movement and composition in every panel to get the main point across.  Hands are not afraid to touch objects and gesture appropriately. There’s a definite language to the characters’  gestures as well, and no two characters use their hands the same way.

Hark, a Vagrant is an even more extreme example.  There’s really very little realism to the forms in general, especially the hands, but still they are extremely expressive and clearly readable.  There’s never any confusion as to how a character is behaving or feeling.

In short, hands are a big thing we look for when engaging a person.  Regardless of style, if an artist wants to have relatable or engaging characters, those characters have to move and act like people, and those people need to be gesturing in a way that moves the action forward clearly and effectively.